(Photo by Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK – When Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons" first opened in London and New York, it was a surprise success. His play about the life and death of Sir Thomas More combined high theatricality and a gentle blend of wit and humor that made it instantly popular.
The reasons that "A Man for All Seasons" seemed unlikely to be such a success are practical: it is set in the 16th century; its conflict is religious; its hero is a saint; and it is, in the end, a tragedy. But it did work, especially with playgoers in New York, where it ran for 80 weeks.
The Fred Zinnemann film version went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and an Oscar for its star, Paul Scofield.
The Roundabout Theater has revived the play at its Forty-Second Street American Airlines Theater headquarters, and the results are mildly disappointing. Starring veteran actor Frank Langella – a year ago, his performance in "Frost/Nixon" won him a Tony – and directed by Doug Hughes, this revival tends to make Mr. Bolt's play less magnificent and less entertaining.
One of the reasons could be that in both the original production and published version of the play, Mr. Bolt uses a character identified as only The Common Man. The Common Man is a jaunty joker, dressed in black, who acts as a sort of guide through the play, accommodating himself to any master as long as there is no responsibility, no hardship, and, of course, no risk. He threads through the play acting several roles and giving it cohesion.
For whatever reason, Mr. Hughes decided to eliminate this character, thus losing a good deal of Mr. Bolt's intended ironic humor. Without The Common Man character, "A Man for All Seasons" comes off a little flat, like a one-note history play.
Yet, the production does have Mr. Langella, who should be commended for playing Sir Thomas easily and gracefully. The Thomas of the play is good-natured, mild in speech, strong in his love of wife and daughter and even fond of the vain but likeable King Henry VIII (Patrick Page).
Although Thomas is a scholar, he is neither pedantic nor pompous. Instead, he is a great man of the world and, at the same time, privately and essentially a man of God.
He fights with every legal trick to stay alive while refusing to sign the act that makes King Henry head of the Church. It is only when the coldly determined prosecutor, Thomas Cromwell (Zach Grenier) tricks him with a perjured witness that he rises in wrath to shout down his accusers at the cost of his own life.
In these moments toward the end of the play, Mr. Langella really captures Mr. Bolt's Sir Thomas. It is when Thomas rises to avow his conscience and to suffer the consequences that this "A Man for All Seasons" and Mr. Langella achieve the essence and magnificence of Mr. Bolt's play.
From London's Royal Court Theatre comes a brilliant new production of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." This version is directed by Ian Rickson from a fluent and discerning adaptation by playwright Christopher Hampton. A superlative company of actors breathes new life and fire into Chekhov's masterpiece in a performance that is in all ways admirable.
The elegant actress Kristin Scott Thomas, known mainly for her work in films like "The English Patient" and this past summer's foreign hit "Tell No One," skillfully plays Irina Arkadina, the bored, vain, egocentric Russian actress who sets the tone and dominates this revival. The other actors –mainly imported from the London production with a few American exceptions, such as Peter Sarsgaard as the writer Trigorin and the extraordinary newcomer Zoe Kazan as the estate steward's daughter Masha – partner their acting styles with those of Ms. Scott Thomas and together create a perfect ensemble of players.
Chekhov wrote "The Seagull" in 1895, and its premiere failed so miserably he decided never again to write plays. Then, in 1898, the newly formed Moscow Art Theatre produced it to great acclaim, establishing Chekhov as a major playwright.
"The Seagull" is mild and gentle, as well as deeply disturbing and as moving as a great piece of music. Although it ends in the destruction of an innocent girl and the suicide of the young man who loved her, Chekhov makes it good-humored much of the time in scenes that penetrate the hearts and humors of the troubled people he has gathered in a 19th-century Russian countryside abode.
It is a tribute to his extraordinary craftsmanship and genius that he could create a tapestry of 10 people whose lives are woven together in a strong single fabric of human longing. Of course, if The Seagull didnt have Chekhovs leavening humor, it might be unbearable, just one tedious dirge of human woe and frustration.
The production is beautifully housed in simple settings by Hildegard Bechtler that represent the gardens and one big room within the old house of the retired state's attorney, Sorin. For all but one of the characters Chekhov introduces in the play's first scene, the bucolic life is unutterably dull. The old man, Sorin, is ill, penniless and almost senile, and he wishes he could begin to live a little; but he is chained to his rundown estate, dominated by an officious steward and bullied by an indifferent doctor.
His sister, the middle-aged actress Arkadina is bored too, and takes out her boredom in petty spite.
Her consort, the author Trigorin, is profoundly unhappy, for he knows what he writes is trash and has begun to suspect that this is the best he will ever achieve. Nina's son, Konstantin, 28, moody and totally frustrated, is jeered at by his mother when he puts on a curious 'modern' play he has written for her benefit.
The only one among them who seems excited by life is the girl Nina, a neighbor's child who is eager, innocent and vulnerable.
The main story of "The Seagull" is the loss of Nina by Konstantin, who loves her; and her destruction by Trigorin, who is attracted to, amused by, and then, ultimately, bored with her.
In this production, Nina is acted with a kind of wonder by Carey Mulligan, who plays her beautifully from the heart. As the boy, Konstantin, Mackenzie Crook is filled with honest intensity and a mad longing. There is a bravura performance by Peter Wight as Sorin, and Peter Sarsgaard is solid if a little understated as Trigorin. All the rest of the ensemble give honest, pertinent performances in the most satisfying production of The Seagull that I have thus far encountered. The Seagull is playing a limited engagement until Dec. 21 at the Walter Kerr Theater onWest 48th Street netweenBroadway and Eighth Ave.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.